And the White Snow as a Clean Sheet of Paper...
Shortly before the Christmas and New Year celebrations, a show of Francisco Infante and Nonna Goryunova titled “Snow Meridian” opened at the Krymsky Val building of the Tretyakov Gallery. It is mounted in a special project section, which is the final stop in the enfilade on the upper storey housing the permanent exhibition “20th-century Art” and also serves as an entry to the section of the newest art trends located on the first storey. The borderline position of the exhibition space – between modern and contemporary art, tradition and experiment – determines the context framing the contemporary artists' exhibition as a part of the personal shows programme.
"Snow Meridian", one of the Tretyakov Gallery projects designed to introduce to the public the most significant Russian artists of today, is a retrospective of pieces pivoted around one theme. The exhibition traces perhaps the entire evolution of artefact as a special form of creative expression combining the features of assemblage, performance, and installation without being narrowly confined to any one of these art forms. Incontestably, Francisco Infante is the person who created this new form and then conceptualized it. He groped his way to the idea of artefact intuitively - through the spontaneous creative acts in a natural setting which he practiced with his wife and co-author Nonna Goryunova in the late 1960s.
Some of these experiments were recorded on film and used as the basis of the "Suprematist Plays" series (1968) - Infante's earliest work featured at the show, which is mounted in the forefront of the exhibition space. The show also features the classic artefacts of the second half of the 1970s: "Pilgrimage of the Square" (1977) and "Focuses of a Deflected Space" (1979), where Infante explores the subject of mirror images incorporated within familiar settings. Infante's artistic evolution can be traced through the series he created during the next decades: "Lining up a Sign, or Inverted Perspective" (19841986), "Rural Impressions" (1995), and "Lines" (2003). Today, as before, Infante and Goryunova continue to demonstrate that artefact is an inexhaustible form of creative expression - this time, in the "Snow in the Alps" series photographed in January-February 2009 in Switzerland, which premieres at the show.
Yet, the exhibition's structure is not chronological - it is determined by the inner logic of the narrative summarized in the project's name. "Snow Meridian" brings together works made in different years but thematically cognate. Each of the pieces features snow as a potent agent of action. In the words of the artist himself, this project affords to the viewers much room for interpretation. Thus, in the minds of many, both foreigners and Russians, snow is one of Russia's symbols, a phenomenon which is not only natural but cultural as well.
Besides, snow, when conceptualized within an artefact paradigm as a creative material, has a unique plastic expressiveness. Covering the earth, snow makes it virginally clean like a white sheet of paper or the surface of a primed canvas. And the bright coloured objects created by the artist and intricately arranged on the snow produce truly painterly effects. Not accidentally, some series of the artefacts evoke the Russian avant-garde legacy such as the Suprematist compositions of Kazimir Malevich or Alexander Rodchenko's works balancing on the thin line between painting and object.
Meanwhile, the snow crust, like the surface of a canvas, has a distinct texture - either porous and grainy or smooth and shiny due to the nodules of ice. This textural diversity is masterfully used to good effect in different series of artefacts. A coarse, unevenly spread, slightly melted snow, typical for the beginning of Spring, serves as the backdrop in the "Suprematist Plays" series of 1968. In some of the pieces from the series "Focuses of a Deflected Space" (1979) and "Additions" (1983) mirror objects are incorporated into the space of winter landscapes with frozen water ponds whose surfaces transform reality reflecting objects placed on them or sunbeams.
The harmony of white on white born from the interplay of light and dark, and of lusterless and shiny, materials is masterfully conveyed by Infante in his "Against the Light" series (2006). Often snow becomes within the context of an artefact the epitome of sculptural element engendering form ("White Buildings", 1996; "Two Lights", 1998; "Structures in Snow", 2004/05).
His recent works add new colours to the characteristics of white thanks to the images of grass shooting forth here and there from under the snow ("Coloured Constructions", 2007). In the shots from the "Snow in the Alps" series (2009), made in a harsh weather, the blasts of wind bring about a "snowy sfumato" obscuring the outlines of landscape in the distant background.
The motif of spinning and falling snow is pursued in a video projection incorporated within the exhibition space, reminding us about the singular importance of accident in the process of creating an artefact.
The craft of capturing the brief instant bringing us closer to eternity and finding that sole viewpoint that offers a glimpse into the mystery of the universe becomes pivotal for bringing an artefact to life. One of the key components here is uniqueness.
This feature also underlies the set-up of Francisco Infante's and Nonna Goryunova's exhibition at the Tretyakov Gallery. Although the idea of "Snow Meridian" project was conceptually brought to fruition in 2008, when a similarly titled show was hosted by the Polina Lo-bachevskaya Gallery, the present exhibition including both well-known pieces and works never previously displayed was put together in a different way especially for the Tretyakov Gallery.
This new exhibition includes more than 130 artefacts from 16 series. Printed in different sizes (there are seven installations overall), they are arranged on the walls so as to form a certain geometrical pattern contravening the show organizers' deep-seated belief that exhibits must be hung in line. The central section of the room features two-sided artefacts secured with cable-stayed structures around the screen showing images of falling snow - the project's essential motif.
Not by coincidence, the opening of the "Snow Meridian" exhibition overlapped with the presentation of the renovated permanent exhibition of the newest art trends, within the context of which Francisco Infante appears as one of the key figures of contemporary art.
The AVC Charity Foundation and the Polina Lobachevskaya Gallery are co-organizers of the exhibition at the Tretyakov Gallery.
During the assembly of the "Snow Meridian" show Francisco Infante spoke to the "Tretyakov Gallery" magazine
Please, tell us about the show.
In essence, this is a conceptual project: it includes only artefacts with snow, and not all of them, but only those that the space can accommodate. The theme of this project was not brought about fortuitously. Russia after all is a country of snow, so for a Russian artist it is natural to tackle snow. Besides, I really love white. I am also interested in the philosophy of white: the special role of this colour in Malevich's artistic system, the notion of the "white Nothing". White is usually the colour of a clean sheet of paper on which you can picture whatever you want.
A similarly named show was hosted a year ago by the Polina Lobachevskaya Gallery. What is the difference between that show and the new one at the Tretyakov gallery?
A special layout was designed for the Tretyakov Gallery. Actually, this is an installation, and the principles of space organization and arrangement of exhibits are a part of the artistic concept. According to the plan, everything must be white here. The area, meanwhile, will be dimly lit, and the artefacts will be illuminated with point lights. A projector in the centre will run a video of a snowfall. The show will feature, along with well known works, artefacts no one has seen yet. We shot them last winter in Switzerland, in the Alps. These exhibits have two sections and they will be floated in the air, not mounted on the walls. I've used already such layout of artefacts - for instance, at my exhibition in Spain in 1995.
So far as I know, "Snow Meridian" is not your first exhibition at the Tretyakov Gallery.
Yes indeed, it's my third one. In late 1992 and early 1993 the Gallery hosted my show called "Artefacts", and in 1998 - "Context".
What sort of relationship do you have with the Tretyakov Gallery as an artist and a viewer? Do you often visit the rooms with the permanent exhibition?
In general I like the Tretyakov Gallery. When I studied at an art school located right across from the main entrance to the museum, I had a tradition of visiting it every day. And I learned by rote the entire arrangement of the pieces: what is mounted where, in which rooms, in what order. Those were mostly artworks of the 19th century.
They were representative of the tradition of craft you were taught at the Moscow Art School?
Yes, the examples offered included Repin, Serov and of course Surikov. But when, suddenly, I was confronted with the idea of infinity (and that event blew my mind), I could not express my feelings through the means of art, or rather, craft that we were taught at the art school. We were mostly into emulating. But this method was not fit for conveying the feelings brewing and exploding inside me. Still, if a person truly cares about something, he will find what to do. And this desire to somehow record what was important for me made me take on so-called contemporary art. At that time I visited the Library of Foreign Literature, where I had access to international magazines. Thanks to them I learned that the free world was accommodative of a totally different art. I did not understand a lot of things then, I was not educated enough to appreciate what I saw in the magazines. But I felt I had an inner potential. And then I decided that since there were people in the West who were making such art, therefore what I did could have some meaning too. Especially since that was no longer a subject of debate for me. For me it was the meaning. But, you see, keeping oneself afloat when everything around is meaningless is not an easy task.
You say that the discovery of the infinity of the world was like an explosion and became a turning point for you. After that did you develop in an evolutionary way?
I guess you can say so. But speaking about evolution, I'm an artist and may be incognizant of what I am doing. I may be unaware. Because when you're inside a situation, you cannot describe it as someone from the outside. But I have a principle: never repeat what you already did. And I want to find a new dimension for everything I'm doing now, at this particular instant. This principle is very important for me, because I think that an artist should not repeat himself. If he does, a certain life-giving element is lost. Repeating what was already done, an artist strays away from the mission of art. For art is a perpetual birth of new beauty. And even if someone tries to replicate his old work, the piece comes out with a different flavour, different interpretation. And some signs indicate that this new piece belongs to a different time period.
One of the most interesting issues in terms of the essence of art is the relationship between form and content. Even though your art has a profound inner substance, often it is the unusual form of the artefacts that catches attention. Does it hurt you that it is the technical, rather than the substantive, aspect that captures the attention?
No, not at all, because everyone is entitled to his own judgement. For a judgement is valid only so much as the person is or isn't prepared to appreciate this or that. Sometimes people simply don't know the subject. And it is quite natural that they make such questions. This is very good, because this is sincere.
By the way, visitors of the"Snow Meridian" show will be greeted with documentary photos mounted on the stairs leading to the room.
Yes, the photos are to be arranged in a continuous upward stepped line along the stairs. The documentary material makes you realize that all this is being created in a real space. People tend to be curious, you know. And they always ask whether this or that was made on a PC. But when we started (the oldest works at the show were made in 1968), there were no PCs. And most essentially, when you look at an object, you see that it was created in real time and real space, no Photoshop, because you see the fasteners: guys, tension bars.
There is a lot of preparatory work that goes into the creation of an artefact. How big is your archive now?
I am not sure. But it's thousands of images - photos and drawings, and adding the documentary stuff, the count is many thousands. This includes notepads with drawings and notes, plus sketches, studies for the compositions on separate paper sheets, etc.
All this inadvertently evokes Leonardo da Vinci, who was both an artist and a scientist. How strongly are you interested in science and technology?
I do not have a professional interest in this; I am not alert to new technical gadgets. Technology as such does not really interest me. I am fairly indifferent to it and probably for this reason I can accept any gadget that is easy to master. Generally I think that an artist should be able to make things with his hands. I had this proclivity since childhood: I built barns, made birdcages and even embroidered in a Bulgarian cross stitch pattern. I liked this because it was constructive. And later I found I could apply all this in my art because you can image infinity only with abstract forms: circle, square, cross, etc. By the way, returning to technology, I want to add that normally modern advanced gadgets are very pricey. For instance, this is the reason why I don't use laser. By the way, there was an interesting episode in my life connected both to art and technology, when, in 1968, I was offered a commission to design accent lighting for the Kremlin. I designed a dynamic accent lighting, made a model, but sure enough, nothing was realized. Later I was advised to take out patents for my inventions - for instance, I contrived how to create a curved mirror surface from a film stretched on special frames.
Is it the same technical device used to create the objects from the cycle "Focuses of a Deflected Space"?
Yes, right. The difficult part was to design the underlying framework. It is coiled and, accordingly, whittled in a certain way. A film stretched over this frame produces a curvature. Depending on the degree of the curvature, the image can be turned by 90, 180 and even 360 degrees. In short, your image is not a mirror image where right becomes left, but right side can remain right side
Yes, this is breath taking, but it's more of a technical thing. It is not related to art. This venture is of secondary importance for me, a sort of vehicle to demonstrate effects that really exist in space; however, people usually do not encounter them day to day. And you can showcase these effects by means of art. But to do this, you need a concept. For me this is the concept of artefact. With the help of an artefact I can show anything. Any application, when spitted on the skewer of a concept, gains meaning and becomes articulated.
This also accounts for that special feature of your works: a concrete and natural world, a world of things at the core of the artefacts instantly transports your mind to such abstract realms as philosophy and metaphysics.
Metaphysics is very important for me. Now it is out of favour, but this does not mean it is no longer around. Metaphysics continues to be a feature of the human mind. I simply like exploring these avenues, from the very start, when I became aware that the world is infinite. This awareness was not directly connected with my occupation. It was a philosophical epiphany pure and simple. I don't know what it is. And I didn't have a philosophical vocabulary; my visual vocabulary was such as we were taught at the art school. This is why I believe that when I tried to find an adequate vocabulary for my feelings and emotions that marked my birth as an artist. Deeply felt emotions are very precious for me because they engross you totally. And there is an element of conscientiousness in it, even an element of childishness.
You occupy a special place among artists today. You seem to be not so much an experimentor as an artist in the classical mould. I believe that the application of non-traditional materials and utilization of new forms of artistic expression don't matter so much as the main mission - the creation of a distinct universe.
I'd say that you see very well the boundaries of my art. And indeed I want to be an artist, and this is of course a creative pursuit. An artist is someone who draws up his own line in the world and finds the vantage point from which this world is clearly seen. And the artist says: "I see". And there is only one vantage point offering a view. And sure enough this point will be different next time, and you'll have to seek it again. It's impossible to step on the same point as before, so repetition of what was done is out of the question. Repeating means imitation, not art.
Are there ideas in modern art that you don't like, what are they?
Probably cynicism and non-constructive critical approach.
It is widely believed that this is the means artists use to test the solidity of the boundaries of art.
But I'm not into testing the solidity of the boundaries myself, I prefer to stay within the text of art, not within its context. I think that art is a text, and creating a context is not what the artist is supposed to do. But in the post-Duchamp tradition context often dominates text. Essentially, text disappears, context alone is left. A situation where something is missing. Something very important. Art itself is missing. And I want to pursue art as such. And art is a creative thing. This is something that stands up vertically. Our life spreads horizontally: we live day to day, going about our daily business. While art produces a different tendency - a vertical. I have a piece made in 1962 "Birth of a Vertical": horizontal dashes forming a vertical. I still consider this piece a very good one because aesthetically and philosophically it articulates very important things about my worldview. I live horizontally like all people, but I try to build up my vertical. Art is a vertical that helps me to stand on both my feet.
And how important is the substantive aspect of art?
This is what art objects are made for. This is why artists put in all that tremendous labour that is the frequent concomitant of art. This labour is preconditioned by meanings the individual carries within himself. And it is for the sake of meaning, when there is one, that everything settles in its proper place. Because ultimately even an artist is a place. Because finding your place and saying "I see!" is the rarest sort of luck.